“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack,” begins The Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” David’s Byrne’s haunting vocals leaving little doubt as to what such a life portends. This is a place where you never want to find yourself.
For most of its history, shotgun shacks—or, less pejoratively, shotgun houses—have been totems of extreme poverty, especially in the south, where they are most common. The typical shotgun is a narrow, one-room-wide cottage with rooms lined up one behind the other and doors at the front and back. (One theory holds that the name came from the possibility of firing a gun through the front door and sending a bullet out the back.) Up to four were typically crammed onto a single lot, giving them a distinctive “row house” look, although the homes shared no common walls.
“Generally, they’re thought of in very disparaging ways,” says Rick Lowe, the founder of Project Row Houses, which has converted 22 Third Ward shotgun houses into artists’ studios, businesses, and community gathering places. Lowe first became interested in the subject through the work of artist John T. Biggers, who founded the art department at Texas Southern University and was known for painting loving images of the houses. “The prevailing attitude about shotgun houses is that they were slum housing. But Biggers portrayed them in a very different way—as vibrant and exciting places.”
In 1993, Lowe and a few artist friends decided to buy and renovate neglected shotgun houses squeezed onto a block and a half of Holman Street, painting them bright white in preparation for their new lives.
According to architectural historian John Vlach, the shotgun house actually originated in West Africa, found its way to Haiti through the slave trade, and then, during the mass exodus following the Haitian revolution, washed up in New Orleans, where it became one of the city’s most characteristic dwellings. By the 1880s, the style began showing up in Houston as rental housing for former slaves and working-class African Americans.
Although seemingly primitive in design, the shotgun house is actually ingenious in its way. The aligned front and back doors open it up to the prevailing breezes, and the house’s elevation a few feet off the ground allows air to flow under the floor, which also helps cool the home. Front and back porches moderate outdoor temperatures.
Still, they were never anyone’s idea of a dream home. “I wouldn’t romanticize the shotgun house,” says Lowe, who was recently appointed by President Obama to the National Council on the Arts. “They’re small houses. It’s not like, ‘I can’t wait to move into my next shotgun house.’ What’s important about the shotgun house is its relevance to the people who used it.”
Once shunned, shotgun houses are now being referenced by architects across the country. In Houston, Brett Zamore designed the Shot-Trot House in the East End, an homage to two regional housing types, the shotgun house and the dogtrot cabin.
“What Project Row Houses demonstrates by the preservation of the two blocks of shotgun cottages they were able to acquire is the importance of recognizing that history and culture are not made only by rich people,” says Stephen Fox. “The landscapes and domestic settings of working people should be treated with the same respect and reverence that are more often accorded the landscapes of the affluent.”